Some fight to the last ditch while others get rich

A Guide to the Ukrainian War

Ekaterina Reznikova, Julia Balakhonova, May 23, 2022

The Project has identified the names of the Russian military officers who gave and are still giving orders during the invasion of Ukraine, from the top leadership of the armed forces to the commanders of individual regiments. Examining the biographies of these officers and the condition of the military units they command provides insight into why the war is going the way it is.

How we did it

At great cost on foreign territory

From the first minute of the war in Ukraine, Russian authorities referred to it as a “special military operation for demilitarization and denazification, » as President Vladimir Putin put it when he read out the invasion decision on the morning of February 24. By analogy with military operations in the North Caucasus and Syria, Putin’s definition was understood as an effective and, if possible, short-term offensive carried out by a limited contingent of professional, well-trained units. So that Russian citizens would not be tempted to call everything that is happening a war, the authorities hastily introduced criminal responsibility for this .

However, this is indeed a war. This is clearly indicated by the quantity and quality of the troops involved in the aggression.

According to the data studied by The Project, all the units of the Russian Armed Forces capable of attacking are taking part in the operation : these are all the land armies available in the country — 11 combined arms and one tank army, all the offensive forces of the Airborne Forces, all the existing reconnaissance units, the marines of all four fleets, self-propelled artillery, bomber, attack and fighter aviation. The geography of their permanent deployment ranges from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka, from Murmansk to Dagestan.

What forces are involved in the war

motorized, artillery and anti-aircraft units of all 12 Russian land armies and a separate tank division ;

all airborne offensive forces: five airborne assault divisions, two airborne divisions, and one special forces brigade;

six reconnaissance brigades of the General Staff ;

marines of all four fleets and surface ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet;

fighter, assault and bomber regiments of the Russian Air and Space Forces and fleet aviation;

police and National Guard (Rosgvardiya) forces.

The Russian army numbers about 900,000 men , and before the invasion, probably at least 20% of its personnel was concentrated near Ukraine’s borders. . The remaining combat-ready formations of ground forces are located near the western borders due to possible confrontation with the NATO . Even the 15th Alexandria Motorized Rifle Brigade from the village of Roshchinskiy in the Samara Oblast has been sent to invade Ukraine. This brigade is the only peacekeeping unit in the country that Russia can send to solve international conflicts under the aegis of the UN.

All this huge force is concentrated in the four directions of the offensive.

Main directions of the offensive, end of February — March 2022

The units and formations involved in the invasion seemed to have a truly impressive combat experience. They have fought in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, annexed Crimea in 2014, and helped separatists in the Donbass. But the professionalism of units depends not on their history, but on the experience of their personnel. Here things are not so straightforward — judging by numerous testimonies, there were conscripts or servicemen in the units who had only just signed their contracts.

No wonder that casualties in the first days of the war were so high.

The number of people Russia has lost in the war with Ukraine, according to the latest statements

5 176

?? Russian Ministry of Defense

> 10 000

?? U.S. State Department

≈ 29 200

?? AFU General Staff

Расследования — это дорого, но это того стоит

Оформив ежемесячное пожертвование “Проекту”, вы поможете нам делать еще больше важных и громких расследований. Так вы поддержите всю расследовательскую журналистику в России!

Support The Project

In debt to the motherland

The scale of looting in the territories captured by the Russian army was enormous — dozens of photos and videos were published in Telegram channels, where items not related to ammunition were found in broken Russian military equipment. When retreating, the fighters take with them not only stolen jewelry and household equipment, but also worn shoes, toys, and even used toilet bowls. The loot is sent home by transport companies from Russia or Belarus.

Russian military in the office of the delivery company. Screenshot from the video of the telegram channel “Belarusian Gayun”

This phenomenon can be explained from a socio-economic point of view. People from the poorest regions of Russia are taking part in the war. Their salaries may be higher than the regional average, but they hardly exceed 50,000 rubles per month .

Natives of poor regions of Russia are killed in Ukraine

Estimates of the number of casualties. Average per capita income, median, rubles, 2021

Dagestan 135

23 600 ₽

Buryatiya 98

22 500 ₽

Volgogradskaya Oblast 80

22 600 ₽

Orenburgskaya oblast 66

21 200 ₽

Krasnodarskiy Kray 65

31 500 ₽

Sttavropolskiy Kray 61

21 200 ₽

Data: number of deaths – Mediazona, income — Rosstat, 2020)

As our study showed, invading officers receive more than soldiers, but even the army and navy chiefs and division and brigade commanders included in our sample live much more modestly than those who sent them to war . The average income of an officer, now commander of a land army, in 2019 was about 270,000 rubles per month. By comparison, deputies of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu earned (just officially) an average of 1.2 million rubles per month during the same period, and officers of the General Staff, who directly lead the Russian army and navy, earned an average of 300,000 rubles . Only the commanders of military districts and certain branches of the armed forces received the same amount as officials of the Ministry of Defense — about 900 thousand rubles per month.

Average salaries of officers in command of Russian troops in Ukraine

Sergei Shoigu and his deputies

1,2 M ₽

Commanders of military districts

900 K. ₽

General Staff officers

300 K. ₽

Land armies commanders

270 K. ₽

Division and brigade commanders

160 K. ₽

Data: declarations of the Russian Ministry of Defense, 2019

Three generals out of 12 commanders of ground armies do not own any real estate — they live in service apartments. The rest have one or two small apartments, and only the commander of the 1st tank army, Sergei Kisel, declared an apartment with an area of over 100 m². Commander of the 20th Army Andrey Ivanaev declared the most real estate: his family owns a 68 m² apartment and three plots of land with a total area of 48,500 m². The wives of army commanders also receive very modest wages: an average of 21 thousand rubles a month.

Commanders of divisions and brigades of the ground forces, air force and navy earned an average of 160 thousand rubles a month. Division and brigade commanders also do not own much property: one or two small apartments at the most, some also have a plot of land .

Divisions and brigades in the Russian army are mainly commanded by colonels. For example, the average salary of an officer with the same rank in Germany is three times higher than in Russia.

Average earnings of officers with a rank equivalent to colonel

Rank OF-5 by international classification


8 719 €


7 478 €


4 531 €


3 542 €


2 358 €

Data: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2019

Astonishingly, every third top commander of the Russian army advancing into Ukraine was found to have debts, including housing and utilities bills and alimony payments.

Five people in our sample were brought to administrative responsibility, including one for his unwillingness to fight corruption among his subordinates. In 2020, the court sentenced Colonel Igor Koleda, commander of the 30th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 2nd Combined Arms Army, to a fine for refusing to comply with the prosecutor’s demand and dismiss a corrupt officer. Koleda himself is listed in the state databases as an alimony defaulter. His unit had been advancing on Kharkiv.

Every fifth person in our sample had traffic fines , and every sixth person didn’t pay them on time. Among the officers there are those who have been deprived of their license for drunk driving or provoking an accident.

These people are the pick of the modern Russian army. Men at the peak of their strength, experienced and relatively well educated. They all have higher education . 40% of commanders have studied at the Combined Arms Academy of the Armed Forces, the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy and the Academy of the General Staff in addition to their specialty education. So, there is no point in talking about the socio-economic situation of their subordinates, the ordinary soldiers of the Russian army.

Educated and successful under Putin

What we know about Russian army commanders who gave orders to invade Ukraine. Based on analysis of biographies of army and district chiefs and commanders of divisions, brigades and regiments.

Average age

— district commanders — 55 лет

— military branches commanders — 60,5 лет

— army commanders — 49,5 лет

— division commanders — 46,5 лет

— brigade commanders — 43,5 года


— Higher education — 100%

— Training at the academies of the Russian Armed Forces and the General Staff Academy at least 40%

War experience

Real combat experience — 23% (39 people), of whom:

— in the First Chechen war — 6 people

— in the Second Chechen war — 13 people

— in the 2008 conflict in Georgia — 5 people

— in the operation in Syria — 26 persons

— in the Donbass conflict — 6 persons

Subscribe to our mailing list (in Russian)

Unfriendly fire

In late March, after five weeks of unsuccessful attempts to seize Ukraine’s capital, Russian troops began to withdraw from the Kyiv area, leaving horrific evidence of street fighting and extrajudicial killings. Destroyed houses, burnt-out cars, and dozens of bodies of civilians shot at point-blank range were lying directly in the streets. Women and minors were raped .

Such brutality seems unprecedented, because for years the Kremlin propaganda has been creating an image of the Russian army as “polite people”. But if we study the biographies of the senior officers and the histories of the units that were entrusted to them, it becomes clear that the soldiers do have someone to learn from.

The corpses of civilians found in Bucha. Source:

The Kyiv suburb of Bucha became a symbol of the brutality of the Russian military — photos of lacerated civilian bodies taken there appeared on the covers of the world’s media in early April. The 64th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 35th Combined Arms Army was deployed in Bucha among others . This unit is stationed in the settlement of Knyaz-Volkonskoye in Khabarovsk Krai and is well known to the local population: its call sign, “Mlechnik, » has become a proverbial name in Khabarovsk.

“Mlechnik” is considered a hellish place among conscripts. Parents of soldiers who served in the 64th Brigade in 2017-2019 say that the food in the unit is poor , it is cold in the barracks, and the uniforms issued are old and out of size. “Before some inspections, some of the soldiers are hidden in the baths, forests and other places for some reason. Maybe they don’t want to frighten the inspectors with the soldiers’ appearance since their uniforms, boots and physical condition leave much to be desired, » says the mother of one of the conscripts.

Field exercises are held twice a year at the training ground, where there are no basic living conditions. In winter and summer, the soldiers live in tents and wash themselves in an earthen pit, where they also wash their clothes. Because of all this, the recruits often fall ill, but there is no medical unit in the brigade. A nurse instructor treats the soldiers with the most primitive medicines, like paracetamol.

Recruits of the “Mlechnik” unit on the oath. Source:

But the worst thing in “Mlechnik” is beatings and extortion. Both conscripts and officers engage in it. Soldiers from the national republics get into gangs and harass fellow conscripts: they take away their cash, bank cards and cell phones. In 2019, for example, a conscript from “Mlechnik” was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison for bullying and extorting a fellow soldier.

Not only do senior enlisted personnel not stop their subordinates, they themselves participate in the bullying. In February 2022, a senior warrant officer and a sergeant beat six privates. The drunken warrant officer checked the numbers on the soldiers’ bedside tables and slippers and beat those whose numbers did not match with a stick. One of the conscripts asked the sergeant to stop the warrant officer, but he joined in the torture.

Due to the fact that conscripts have no one to complain to, they try to run away from the unit or get a medical discharge — “they eat chlorine and swallow needles” . Sometimes soldiers go to extreme measures. For example, in 2014 conscript Alexei Snakin committed suicide. Major Nikolai Chabanov beat him with a broom handle, forced him to wear a bulletproof vest and gas mask all day long, and shortly before his death, he put Alexei “on a clock”, telling him to buy him a new computer. The court first sentenced Chabanov to a suspended sentence, and only after the intervention of human rights activists was the major sentenced to 3.5 years in a colony with deprivation of the right to hold senior positions for two years.

Alexey Snakin

The “Mlechnik” servicemen show cruelty not only to fellow soldiers. In 2015, in the garrison in Knyaz-Volkonsky, a group of servicemen beat a passerby to death. The witness was the unit’s cook, who was passing by and stood up for the victim. He tried to call for help, but the crowd turned on him. “I went to the officer on duty. The chief warrant officer came out, the military police were here, and they were beating me in front of them, » he later told reporters. The cook eventually shot one of the attackers with a traumatic weapon and dragged the battered man to his car, where he died before medics arrived.

Khabarovsk Krai ranks third in Russia in terms of the number of sentences handed down in cases of non-statutory relations in the army . In second place is Primorsky Krai, which has its own “hell’s kitchen” — the village of Sergeevka. The 127th Motorized Rifle Division of the 5th Combined Arms Army, which also fought on the Kyiv front, is stationed there.

In 2018, 20-year-old contract serviceman Roman Sapegin escaped from the unit in Sergeyevka. He reported bullying, beatings and extortion by fellow servicemen from the Caucasus: “They take away phones and bank cards.” The last straw for him was the episode when a sergeant forced a private to wash the toilet bowl with his bare hands and severely beat him for refusing.

“Last year, a sentry in our unit shot himself at night, two more conscripts were run over to death by an Ural truck right on the firing range, and another soldier hanged himself, » he said.

In 2017, soldiers from Yakutia and Dagestan had a fight in the unit. After the video of the fight hit the web, an inspection was to come to the garrison from Moscow. The instigators of the brawl were sent home two days before the end of service, and the remaining servicemen were warned: “No one saw anything, maybe just a couple of people got into a fight, and that was it” .

Strange things sometimes happen in the settlement. In September 2018, a headless uniformed corpse was found near the Sergeevka unit. A year earlier, another decapitated body was found in neighboring Ussuriysk, where units of the 127th Division are also stationed, and it turned out to be Artillery Major Andrei Golovlev, who had disappeared in the summer of that year.

Khabarovsk, Sergeyevka and Ussuriysk are the places from which conscripts and contract servicemen most often run away in Russia . But the Moscow Oblast, where the 1st Guards Tank Army is stationed among other formations, ranks first in Russia for the number of cases of non-statutory relations. Cases of beatings, extortion and unmotivated cruelty are constantly recorded in army units in Naro-Fominsk and the settlement of Kalininets. And soldiers also die there — in peacetime, while carrying out the orders of commanders.

For example, in February 2017, Ilya Gorbunov, a conscript from the 4th Tank Division of the 1st Tank Army, was ordered to move a tank with damaged tracks and brake to the tank yard. The tank overturned on a narrow bridge, fell into the river and drowned. The soldier, who was not allowed to drive the vehicle, died. At the trial, Gorbunov’s direct commander, Senior Lieutenant Oleg Leontyev, stated that he deserved leniency, because he participated in a military operation on the territory of a “neighboring state” — at that time the division was secretly fighting in Donbas. The court sentenced the officer to a three-year suspended sentence with a two-year probation period.

In total, from 2016 to September 2020 Russian courts of first instance have considered 1,268 cases of non-statutory relations. Another 292 criminal cases were under the articles “violent actions against a superior” and “insulting a serviceman” . Nearly a third of the cases were dismissed: the court considered the crimes to be minor, and the defendants repaid the damage and got away with a fine.

These are just the cases that have gone to court. After all, any incidents in the army are carefully concealed. A telling example of this kind also gives insight into who commands the war in Ukraine. In 2015, Colonel Yevgeny Doroshenko was tried for failing to assist a subordinate. A sergeant got drunk and felt ill, but the unit commander did not allow him to call a doctor, wanting “to avoid the negative consequences for him in the form of a disciplinary penalty, » the court of first instance said in its verdict. The sergeant died, and Doroshenko was initially sentenced to four years in prison with disqualification to hold positions in the army, but was released on appeal because the statute of limitations had expired. Doroshenko now commands the 47th Guards Division of the 1st Tank Army advancing on Kharkiv.

“You don’t give away your beloved”

Alexander Lukashenko said this phrase in August 2020. By “beloved, » he meant Belarus, the country he had led for 26 years at the time. This phrase may have become a symbol of totalitarian cruelty: that summer, hundreds of Belarusians who came out to protest peacefully against the results of the presidential elections in Minsk and other cities were arrested, tortured, given criminal sentences, or forced to flee the country. That is, people were punished for fighting for the future of their own country. Now exactly the same cruelty to civilians is being demonstrated by Russian commanders who were born and raised on the territory of modern-day Ukraine.

Every eighth officer of those we have identified is affiliated with Ukraine.

The commander of the 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army Nikolai Gostev was born in a village in Sumy Oblast. Now his planes and helicopters are involved in the war.

Oleg Makovetsky, commander of the 6th Air Force Army from the Leningrad Oblast, was also born in Ukraine, in the town of Chuhuyiv in the Kharkiv Oblast. The Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office believes that it was he who gave the order to bomb Kharkiv.

Lieutenant General Mikhail Zusko commanded the 58th Combined Arms Army, which was advancing from Crimea to Mykolaiv. He was born into a large family in Volyn, but began fighting against Ukrainians back in 2014 in the Donbass. Zusko is considered a war criminal in Ukraine, along with other officers who participated in the operation to capture Crimea or military actions in Donbass. He and nine others on our list have been put on Ukraine’s wanted list for financing terrorism and unleashing a war of aggression until February 24, 2022.

Colonel Vadim Pankov was born in Belarus, but he went to Ukraine to study at the Frunze Kyiv Higher Combined Arms Command School. After graduation in 1992, he became a commander of one of the units of the Ukrainian army. And, of course, he gave the military oath to the people of Ukraine, promising never to betray it. Pankov did not keep his word as an officer and became commander of the 45th separate Special Forces Brigade of the Russian Army, which is involved in the Ukrainian campaign.

* * *

At least 20 Russian invasion commanders we have identified had already died as of mid-May . Four of the deceased ended their lives in the same place where they were born — in Ukraine.

Editing — Roman Badanin

Fact checking — Katia Arenina